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Smoking in North Korea

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Tobacco smoking is popular and, at least for men, culturally acceptable in North Korea As of 2014update, some 45% of men are reported to smoke daily, whilst in contrast only 25% of women smoke daily, with most of these being older women from rural areas Smoking is a leading cause of death in North Korea, and as of 2010update mortality figures indicate that 34% of men and 22% of women die due to smoking, the highest mortality figures in the world There are tobacco control programs in North Korea, and although smoking is not prohibited in all public spaces, the smoking rates have declined since their peak in the 2000s

All three leaders of North Korea—Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un—have been smokers and the country has struggled to balance their public image with its anti-smoking efforts In general, North Koreans tend to prefer strong tobacco and different classes of quality range from homegrown to sought-after foreign brands that are considered status symbols As a percentage of the available arable land compared to consumption, the tobacco crop is over-represented in North Korean agriculture


  • 1 Consumption
  • 2 History
  • 3 Culture
    • 31 Women and smoking
    • 32 Smokers' preferences
  • 4 Health effects
  • 5 Tobacco control
    • 51 Law
  • 6 Tobacco industry
  • 7 See also
  • 8 Notes
  • 9 References
    • 91 Works cited
  • 10 External links


Over 4,569,000 adults and 167,000 children in North Korea are believed to consume tobacco daily1 It is estimated by the World Lung Foundation and American Cancer Society's The Tobacco Atlas 2014 data that 45% of men, 25% of women, nearly 16% of boys and <1% of girls aged <15 are daily smokers,1 with the average smoker data is likely skewed towards males due to the higher prevalence of smoking in this group smoking an average of 609 cigarettes per person per year2 World Health Organization WHO data is roughly comparable, with 44% of men classified as smokers only 33% are classed as "daily smokers",3 whilst North Korean anti-smoking authorities put the figure even higher, saying that some 54 percent of men are smokers4

Overall, the average smoker consumes 124 cigarettes per day,5 with this figure rising slightly to 15 per day when just male smokers are considered6 The average smoker starts smoking at aged 23 and the percentage of the population that smokes increases with age until the 55–64 age group,6 after which it declines5 On average urban smokers tend to smoke more cigarettes per day than rural farmers6

Data indicates that the prevalence of smoking in North Korea is on par with South Korea, although South Korean men pick up the habit earlier and smoke more cigarettes per day7

However, much of the currently information regarding the smoking habits of North Koreans is obtained by studying North Korean defectors who now live in the South and may not be totally representative of the true picture One study of defectors found that smoking is even more common than anticipated, but nicotine dependence was not as severe as predicted Defectors are reported as often being very interested in quitting smoking8


File:North Korea 5015253795jpg North Korea's first leader Kim Il-sung depicted smoking All three leaders have been smokers

Smoking arrived in Korea in the early 1600s from Japan9 and until around 1880, both men and women smoked10 Today, North Koreans consider smoking to be a normal activity for men, but female smoking has become a social taboo11

All of North Korea's three leaders—Kim Jong-un, his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung—have been smokers12 Kim Jong-il has called smokers one of the "three main fools of the 21st century", along with people who do not understand music or computers13 The current leader Kim Jong-un is often seen smoking in public,14 including in university classrooms, subway cars, and in the presence of his pregnant wife Ri Sol-ju,15 facts that "might make the life of the North Korean health educators more complicated"11 While discussing any negative aspects of the leaders has normally been rare, some North Koreans have recently raised the issue of the apparent contradiction between anti-smoking measures and Kim's public image with foreigners14


Women and smokingedit

Female smoking is a taboo in North Korea11 and is considered even more disgraceful than heavy drinking Women are said to "react with shock if you joke that maybe they secretly smoke in bathrooms"13 Smoking by older women, above the age of 45 to 5010 is more tolerated, particularly in rural areas11 In comparison, for men smoking is considered such an important social activity that men who do not smoke can become outsiders at workplaces11

Smokers' preferencesedit

Cigarettes being sold at a duty-free shop at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport

Even though most consumer items are in short supply in North Korea, there is a considerable variety of cigarettes available4 In general, strong tobacco is preferred,11 and filters are rare16 Western brands, particularly American, but also Chinese, Russian and Japanese174 are popular with the elite and preferred over domestic cigarettes17 Foreign cigarettes and the domestic 727 brand, whose name stands for 27 July, the date of the Korean Armistice Agreement, are veritable status symbols174 Menthol cigarettes are virtually non-existent, but there is competition among tobacco companies to introduce other attractive products, such as fruit-flavoured balls inside the filter to give the cigarette flavour4

Those who have hard currency can easily buy imported cigarettes from hard currency shops,17 although these will also stock the best domestic brands such as Pak Ma, comparable in quality to makhorka to convince tourists of the quality of North Korean tobacco16 Cigarettes are popular gifts,9 and tourists are recommended to give Western brand cigarettes to tour guides18 Within the country, cigarettes are used as form of currency in bribery9

The party newspaper Rodong Sinmun is used as rolling paper for roll-your-own cigarettes

Those who roll their own tobacco prefer to use sheets of Rodong Sinmun—the organ of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea—as rolling paper17 One piece of the paper can be used to roll some 40 to 50 cigarettes According to one defector, when a North Korean "starts to smoke the Rodong Sinmun tobacco, he cannot smoke other kinds of tobacco I used to smoke the Rodong Sinmun tobacco, and after defection, couldn't smoke with Chinese paper tobacco due to the poor taste"19 Because the Rodong Sinmun is in limited circulation, most North Koreans roll their cigarettes with some other paper20

Health effectsedit

The health impacts of smoking are well documented and in North Korea the high prevalence of smoking has a significant impact on the health of the population6 Some 343% of men and 223% of women are reported to die as a result of smoking,21 the highest smoking mortality figures in the world,22 and in total tobacco-caused illness kills 55,600 North Koreans annually1

Tobacco controledit

Tobacco is only sold at designated shops at a fixed price set by the government23a As of 2014update, a 20-pack of the most common cigarette brand costs 24638 North Korean won,24 whilst the cheapest 20-pack sells for as little as 747 won25

North Korea has set up specific government objectives for tobacco control and there is a national agency to implement them, with eight full-time staff members26 Although there is no free of charge smoking cessation quitline that callers could phone and discuss their problems, most health-care facilities offer support in cessation,27 including cessation programs and nicotine replacement therapy28 Costs are covered for the patient partially or in full by the state27 In addition to regular health-care clinics, there are 11 specialized anti-smoking centers in the country where consultation is free, but medicine is not4 Of medicines, bupropion and varenicline are not legally available in North Korea,27 but herbal medicines are used as smoking cessation aids4

There have been attempts at anti-smoking movements "across the generations" in the country,14 with the earliest major campaign taking place in 200413 While early campaigns had little effect, they have become more frequent in the 2010s and restrictions on smoking have been observed more closely in recent years;14 consequently, since the early 2000s smoking rates have started to decline11 There are signs that the North Korean government takes anti-smoking campaigns more seriously than in the past14 According to the WHO, North Korea now "keenly celebrates World No Tobacco Day WNTD every year and disseminates information about tobacco use and its effect on health The Government persuades public health institutions and the media to spread the information about the health effects of tobacco and its adverse impact on environmental protection and economic development"23


Smoking legislation in North Korea has tightened in recent years, although it is still relatively lax and has not had any really meaningful effect on curtailing smoking rates1514 The rules on where people can or cannot smoke are complex, with smoking prohibited on sidewalks, ferries, airplanes and at stations, in health-care and educational facilities, kindergartens and nurseries, shops, theaters, cinemas, culture halls and conference rooms, historic and battle sites, and hotel lobbies29302314b However, smoking is not prohibited in either private or work vehicles or on-board trains, at bus stops, near entrances to buildings, in universities, government offices, workplaces, restaurants, cafes, bars, or nightclubs293014

A smoking lounge at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang

Some of the legislation is observed with high levels of compliance,29 but not uniformly throughout the country14 There are not mandatory fines for smoking transgressions,29 although the newest 2016 anti-smoking campaign has seen fines issued and offenders threatened with images of them being broadcast on TV15 Tobacco packaging warning messages are required on all types of packaging, but their appearance is not regulated in any way31 They are usually printed in small print on the side of the package and only state that smoking is harmful to health4 However, the descriptions must state the nicotine and tar content,23c must not be misleading and do need to be approved by local authorities32 Graphic warning images that are now common worldwide have never appeared on packaging33

There are no restrictions on tobacco advertising,34 although there are no advertising campaigns in North Korean media either35 Tobacco may not be sold to minors d36 those under the age of 174 and Cigarette machines are banned34e North Korea imposes no kind of tax at all on tobacco, including specific excise, ad valorem excise, value-added tax, sales tax, or import duty24 Electronic cigarettes are legal37

North Korea signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control on 17 June 2003 and ratified it on 27 April 200538

Tobacco industryedit

The tobacco industry in North Korea is substantial,13 with 53,000 hectares 23 percent of its arable land39 dedicated to tobacco cultivation This is the fourth-highest percentage of arable land dedicated to tobacco in the world,40 with the annual output exceeding 80,000 tonnes, making North Korea one of the top 25 tobacco worldwide producers This is despite 31% of North Koreans being malnourished41 The best, strongest and most expensive tobacco comes from the north of the country near the border with China20

There are many North Korean tobacco companies,13 making some 30 different types of cigarettes,9 with the biggest tobacco company being the North Korea General Tobacco Corporation42 Some companies export tobacco to the Middle East and elsewhere, sometimes in partnership with foreign firms For example, the Taedong River Tobacco Company and the Rason Shinhung Tobacco Company, both operating in the Rason Special Economic Zone, are partnered with the Chinese Jilin Tobacco British American Tobacco also has business in the country, but it has reduced its involvement due to political pressure and public relations reasons13 High-end Pyongyang brand cigarettes were exported to South Korea during the years of the Sunshine Policy and they were popular among South Koreans who wanted to express a pro-reunification stance16 There are some privately owned tobacco factories, some of which are known to produce counterfeit brand cigarettes for export as part of North Korea's illicit activities to earn hard currency17

Leaf tobacco is cheap and can be bought from markets to roll one's own cigarettes Many rural farmers produce homegrown tobacco on their own plot of land, while others steal tobacco from cooperative farms for sale17

See alsoedit

  • North Korea portal
  • Health and fitness portal
  • Cannabis in North Korea
  • Health effects of tobacco
  • Health in North Korea
  • List of countries by cigarette consumption per capita
  • Prevalence of tobacco consumption
  • Smoking age
  • Smoking in South Korea
  • Women and smoking


  1. ^ Law of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on Tobacco Control 2009, Articles 22 and 23
  2. ^ Law of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on Tobacco Control 2009, Articles 27 and 28
  3. ^ Law of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on Tobacco Control 2009, Article 12
  4. ^ Law of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on Tobacco Control 2009, Article 24
  5. ^ Law of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on Tobacco Control 2009, Article 22


  1. ^ a b c "Country Fact Sheet: DPR Korea" The Tobacco Atlas World Lung Foundation 2015 Retrieved 27 May 2016 
  2. ^ "Cigarette Use Globally" The Tobacco Atlas 2014 Retrieved 27 May 2016 
  3. ^ WHO Country Profile 2015, p 2
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Smokers' Paradise: North Korea is Now Urging People to Quit, though Kim Jong-un Sets a Poor Example" South China Morning Post Associated Press 6 July 2016 Retrieved 25 October 2016 
  5. ^ a b "STEPwise Approach to Chronic Disease Risk Factor Surveillance" PDF World Health Organization 2007 p 7 
  6. ^ a b c d WHO 2009, p 13
  7. ^ Young-Ho Khang 2013 "Two Koreas, War and Health" International Journal of Epidemiology 42 4: 926 doi:101093/ije/dyt134 
  8. ^ Sei Won Kim; Jong Min Lee; Woo Ho Ban; Chan Kwon Park; Hyoung Kyu Yoon; Sang Haak Lee 2016 "Smoking Habits and Nicotine Dependence of North Korean Male Defectors" Korean Journal of Internal Medicine 31 4: 685 doi:103904/kjim2015114 
  9. ^ a b c d Lankov 2007, p 107
  10. ^ a b Lankov 2007, p 109
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Lee, Michelle 4 December 2015 "North Korea's Halting Anti-smoking Efforts" NK News Retrieved 28 July 2016 
  12. ^ Oppenheim, Maya 3 July 2016 "A South Korean Spy Agency Claims They've Worked Out How Much Weight Kim Jong Un Has Put On" The Independent Retrieved 18 August 2016 
  13. ^ a b c d e f "Smoking in Pyongyang" chosonexchangeorg Choson Exchange 30 June 2016 Retrieved 25 October 2016 
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i Macdonald, Hamish 6 July 2016 "Mixed Messages on Smoking Restrictions in North Korea" NK News Retrieved 25 October 2016 
  15. ^ a b c Seol Song Ah 27 June 2016 "Smoking Ban by Cigarette-loving Kim Riles Residents" Daily NK Retrieved 25 October 2016 
  16. ^ a b c Hokkanen 2013, p 97
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Lankov 2007, p 108
  18. ^ "North Korea Travel Rules and Tips" New Korea Tours 2014 Retrieved 18 August 2016 
  19. ^ "Who Reads North Korea's Rodong Sinmun Newspaper" NK News 13 October 2015 Retrieved 24 March 2016 
  20. ^ a b Hokkanen 2013, p 98
  21. ^ "Smoking's Death Toll" The Tobacco Atlas World Lung Foundation 2010 Retrieved 31 May 2016 
  22. ^ Eriksen et al 2015, pp 14–15
  23. ^ a b c d WHO 2011, p 22
  24. ^ a b WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2015, p 137
  25. ^ WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2015, p 149
  26. ^ WHO Country Profile 2015, p 1
  27. ^ a b c WHO Country Profile 2015, p 4
  28. ^ "Quitting" The Tobacco Atlas World Lung Foundation 2012 Retrieved 31 May 2016 
  29. ^ a b c d WHO Country Profile 2015, p 3
  30. ^ a b WHO 2012, p 88
  31. ^ WHO Country Profile 2015, pp 5–6
  32. ^ WHO 2012, p 80
  33. ^ "Warnings & Packaging" The Tobacco Atlas World Lung Foundation 2015 Retrieved 31 May 2016 
  34. ^ a b WHO Country Profile 2015, p 8
  35. ^ WHO 2009, p 68
  36. ^ WHO 2011, p 23
  37. ^ WHO Country Profile 2015, p 9
  38. ^ WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2015, p 192
  39. ^ "Growing Tobacco" The Tobacco Atlas World Lung Foundation 2012 Retrieved 31 May 2016 
  40. ^ Eriksen et al 2015, p 47
  41. ^ Eriksen et al 2015, p 46
  42. ^ "Tobacco Companies" The Tobacco Atlas World Lung Foundation 2014 Retrieved 31 May 2016 

Works citededit

  • Eriksen, Micahel; Mackay, Judith; Schluger, Neil; Gomeshtapeh, Farhad Islami; Drope, Jeffery 2015 The Tobacco Atlas PDF Fifth ed Atlanta: American Cancer Society ISBN 978-1-60443-235-0 
  • Hokkanen, Jouni 2013 Pohjois-Korea: Siperiasta itään North Korea: East of Siberia in Finnish Helsinki: Johnny Kniga ISBN 978-951-0-39946-0 
  • Lankov, Andrei 2007 North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea Jefferson: McFarland ISBN 978-0-7864-5141-8 
  • "Law of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on Tobacco Control" PDF Pyongyang: Legislation Press 2010 2009 
  • WHO 2009 WHO Country Cooperation Strategy: Democratic People's Republic of Korea 2009–2013 PDF World Health Organization Regional Office for South-East Asia 
  • WHO 2011 "Profile on Implementation of WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in the South-East Asia Region" PDF World Health Organization Regional Office for South-East Asia 
  • WHO 2012 2012 Global Progress Report on Implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control PDF Geneva: World Health Organization ISBN 978-92-4-150465-2 
  • WHO Country Profile 2015 WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2015: Country Profile: Democratic People's Republic of Korea PDF World Health Organization 
  • WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2015 WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2015: Raising Taxes on Tobacco PDF World Health Organization ISBN 978-92-4-069460-6 

External linksedit

  • North Korea at The Tobacco Atlas
  • "North Korean Site Lists Cigarette Addiction Cure" at NK News
  • "Meet Azalea the Smoking Chimp, New Star at Pyongyang Zoo" at ABC News

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